The Scottish Government has spent a long time attempting to persuade the public that, when it comes to Scotland's further education sector, more can be done with less.
The implication was that the FE colleges were carrying a lot of surplus capacity.
In the current climate, no sector is immune from efficiency savings and there is much common sense in the proposal to rationalise college provision, eliminating duplication and making them more responsive to the needs of local employers. The objective is a leaner, fitter college sector. At the same time there has been an attempt to protect full-time places, at the expense of part-time ones. But regardless of the long-term objective, these changes appear to have produced a short-term bottleneck.
As The Herald reports today, in excess of 21,000 applications this year have been consigned to waiting lists. At a time when unemployment among 16 to 24-year-olds is already approaching 25%, more than two-thirds of those on these waiting lists are under-25s who have applied for full-time courses. These students have the qualifications necessary for their desired course but cannot secure a place.
Even if some of these students have opted to return to school and others may be on more than one waiting list, it is a shockingly high figure and one that brings into question the Scottish Government's promise of education or training for every 16 to 19-year-old. Clearly the sharp drop in the number of part-time courses has had a knock-on effect on the pressure of applications for full-time courses. Hence the queue for places.
Those waiting include 2340 for healthcare courses and more than 1200 for engineering courses. With 1300 college staff cut in the past year and more deep cuts in teaching budgets yet to come, there is bound to be a knock-on impact on students.
The college sector should be pivotal to giving students the skills that will be required when the economy starts motoring again. It is especially important for bright students from deprived backgrounds, who missed out on educational qualifications first time around and use HNC and HND courses as a route to degree courses.
The sector is also vital to students with disabilities, for whom life skills courses offer a route to independence.
There is an element in Scottish educational policy of robbing Peter to pay Paul as a result of the political pressure to fill the funding gap for universities created by the introduction of tuition fees in England. This is unacceptable. Given the length of these waiting lists, there is surely an onus on the Government to postpone further cuts in teaching budgets and student places until this issue has been tackled. Give these students the skills and they can do the job.
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